Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Arab Zajal Struggles to Remain Relevant

Many express nostalgia for the rise of zajal, appreciating its historical role in fostering a shared culture that transcended sectarian boundaries.

Arab Zajal
Men enjoying a night of Lebanese Zajal.

Ali Nour El-Din

This article was translated from Arabic to English

The art of zajal is experiencing a significant decline in the Arab Levant region, prompting concerns about its potential extinction. Once an integral component of the region’s identity, heritage and civilization for many centuries, zajal’s waning popularity is evident.

Over time, this art form evolved, chronicling the concerns and events of the region’s communities through zajal poems. However, it struggles to captivate today’s younger generation, who are increasingly drawn to different music genres and fast-paced songs.

Recognizing the cultural importance of zajal, UNESCO included “Lebanese zajal,” a variation of Levantine zajal on its list of intangible human heritage in 2014. This designation highlights the unique role this art has played within local culture. Since 2001, UNESCO has been actively identifying and classifying endangered traditions, like zajal, to encourage their celebration and preservation as part of the shared local heritage.

The history and origin of the zajal

Zajal is a cherished form of popular literature, known for its spoken language composition, diverse meters and departure from the strict parsing and grammar rules of classical Arabic.

Typically presented in an improvised manner, zajal takes the shape of a lively debate among poets, often accompanied by simple musical instruments like drums and tambourines to provide a melodic rhythm. This expressive art form has flourished in Lebanon, northern Palestine, western Syria and northern Jordan, deeply ingrained in local social and ceremonial gatherings.

Zajal concerts are distinguished by the spirited exchanges between participants, demanding quick wit and distinctive expressive abilities to captivate the audience. The banter between poets often takes on a humorous and playful tone, engaging in mutual and exaggerated challenges.

The themes explored in these impromptu poems are diverse and unrestricted, encompassing pride in origin, lineage and homeland, affection for family, nature and the land, as well as romantic notions and reverence for the past. Occasionally, political themes find their way into these verses, tailored to the nature of the social occasion hosting the zajal.

Within academic circles, there is ongoing debate concerning the origin and diffusion of this art in the Arab Levant region. Historical studies suggest that the practice of spontaneously composing poems and accompanying them with simple melodies during popular gatherings dates back to the pre-Islamic era in the Arabian Peninsula. During this time, “poet Al-Khansa’a” was acknowledged as the pioneer among the “jazzaleen,” a term derived from “zajal,” which means sound in Arabic.

In his book “Al-Muqaddimah,” Ibn Khaldun highlights that this art later made its way to Andalusia after its conquest by Muslims, where “the art of stanzas gained popularity, admired for its fluidity, eloquent language and intricate composition.”

Andalusians incorporated the art of improvisation and poem composition into the creation of muwashshahs for which they gained renown, some of which are still cherished today. Ibn Khaldun further notes the widespread adoption of this art across various Arab regions due to its appeal, simple melodies and rhythmic appeal. Each region crafted poetry in its local spoken dialect, coining it “zajal,” inspired by the term popular during the pre-Islamic poetry era.

In this context, Ibn Khaldun draws a historical connection between this art and the pre-Islamic sung zajal. He illustrates how this form of art migrated to Andalusia through improvisation and the recitation of stanzas, later adopted by various Arab regions for composing poems in their spoken dialects.

As a result, Tunisian, Moroccan, Egyptian and Gulf zajal emerged at different stages, each contributing distinct flavors and melodies to the zajal, which eventually gained popularity in the Arab Levant countries and remains a prominent part of their culture today.

Despite its cultural significance, zajal poems have not received significant academic attention in traditionally transmitted Arabic literature. This lack of scholarly study may stem from their deviation from conventional grammar rules and the challenge of disseminating verses written in the spoken language across the diverse Arab regions. This difficulty in tracing the spread of this art historically has contributed to the mystique surrounding its development, especially before its widespread acceptance in regions such as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.

It’s important to note that historians propose alternate theories to elucidate the evolution of zajal in the Levant region.

For instance, Antoine Boutros Al-Khouiri, in his book “The History of the Lebanese Zajal,” contends that Lebanese zajal did not simply evolve from Andalusian stanzas, as commonly believed, but rather originated from the practice of reciting ancient Syriac poetry. Al-Khouiri substantiates this assertion by highlighting the resemblances in colors and melodies found in zajal across Lebanese regions, aligning with popular arts prevalent in the Arab Levant region prior to Islamic conquests.

Amid academic debates concerning the art’s origins, some suggest the possibility of multiple concurrent theories being accurate.

They propose that zajal art may have emerged through a fusion of Arabic poetry improvisation patterns from Andalusia with the melodies and practices of reciting ancient Syriac poetry predating Islamic conquests. They emphasize that the local dialects in the Arab Levant region were primarily shaped by a blending of Arabic with local languages, allowing for the influence of multiple cultural factors on local folk arts simultaneously.

The rise and decline of the art of zajal

As mentioned earlier, zajal has retained its prominent position in the cultural life of the Arab Levant region over the centuries, distinguishing it from some other Arab regions that did not preserve this art, despite its historical spread.

Particularly in the last century, zajal experienced a notable resurgence in the Arab Levant region, facilitated by the advent of various media outlets such as radio, television, cassette tapes and more. The accessibility of zajal concerts also expanded with advancements in transportation and the proliferation of cars, enabling well-known zajal groups to conduct multiple performances in a single day.

This phenomenon led to a rapid establishment of zajal groups over the past century, exemplified by the founding of the Valley Blackbird Choir in 1928, serving as a foundational entity from which other zajal groups originated.

Other significant groups followed suit, including the Cedar Bulbul Choir (1928), Karwan Al-Wadi Choir (1931), Amalli Association in South Lebanon (1943), and Cedar Choir (1944). In Mount Lebanon, the Mountain Choir (1953) and Khalil Roukoz Choir (1962) made notable contributions. During this period, local television broadcasts facilitated the matches between these teams, garnering a growing fan base and enthusiasts for each of these groups.

However, during the last quarter of the past century, the art of zajal experienced a decline across the Levant region. The Lebanese civil war disrupted communication between different regions, leading to the disbandment of cross-regional bands. The conflict also necessitated the halt of popular zajal concerts due to safety concerns related to explosions and artillery shelling, stifling the main venues utilized by zajal performers for recitations.

In other Levant region countries, zajal witnessed a decline due to rural-to-urban migration, resulting in the loss of a significant portion of the popular base accustomed to learning zajal rhymes and reciting them during social gatherings.

Moreover, modern media and contemporary artistic production companies largely overlooked this art form, as it relies on improvisation at popular events, favoring instead modern music and pre-recorded songs for their ease of marketing and dissemination as readily consumable artistic products. This commercial dynamic significantly contributed to the sidelining of zajal art.

Many in the Arab Levant countries express nostalgia for the rise of zajal art, appreciating its historical role in fostering a shared local artistic culture that transcended sectarian boundaries. They value its cultural significance in reviving popular and civic events. There is a belief that revitalizing this form of local art can contribute to the reinvigoration of tourism in rural areas, particularly through heritage concerts, a tradition once vibrant in the past.

However, reviving this art necessitates employing modern communication tools to connect with the new generation, including leveraging social media, instead of solely relying on traditional concert venues and social events.

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